Piano Technique V

[anti-rclick]Recently I am working on an extended research on the broad subject of “piano technique”, and in particular, the historical development of the writings contributed to such topic. Thereby I came across a dissertation that gives a detailed discussion on two centuries of piano technique methods.

This PhD dissertation, dated 1954, is entitled “A history of theories of teaching piano technic” (New York University). In this study, the author Roger Crager Boardman presents a comprehensive review of what major and influential treatises have been written from 1753 to 1953. Boardman categorizes the writings into three schools: I) Finger Technic, 1753-1860, II) the Arm and its Weight, 1850-1900, and III) Weight Relaxation 1900-1953.

First of all let us look at the first school, the School of Finger Technic, with the list shown below:

*CPE Bach: Ein Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu Spielen
(“Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments”) (1753)

Marpurg: Anleitung Zum Klavierspielen (1765)

Löhlein: Klavierschule (1765)

*Türk: Klavierschule oder Anweisung zum (1765)

Petri: Anleitung Zur Praktischen Musik (“Introduction to Practical Music”) (1782)

Wolf: Unterricht im Klavierspielen (1783)

Louis Adam: Methode Nouvelle pour le Piano (1798)

*Clementi: Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte (1801)

*Hummel: The Piano School of Hummel (1828)

*Czerny: Complete Theoretical and Practical Pianoforte School (1837)

(* indicates a higher level of significance in piano technique development)

The School of Finger Technic includes composer-pedagogues such as C.P.E. Bach, Muzio Clementi, and Carl Czerny. C.P.E. Bach is most significant for his keyboard treatise, “Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments” (1753) (see Piano Technique IV for the discussion of this treatise).

Türk’s treatise is an extension of C.P.E. Bach’s writing. Most of the 460 pages are devoted to the teaching of music rudiments (time, intervals, scales and keys), embellishments and thorough bass, while a smaller proportion is given to the discussion of fingering. Türk has specific concerns on the posture of the player, that one has to sit straight with an approximation of one foot’s distance from the keyboard, feet firm on the ground and fingers a few inches lower than the elbows.

Türk believes that the most preferable fingering is that the hands can stay most calm and thus most convenient, producing a “correct, distinct and flowing manner of execution” (p.35). He, in contrary to C.P.E. Bach’s belief, is strict on using fifth fingers and thumb on black keys, allowed only in most extraordinary cases.

In the treatise, Türk provides many short exercises for the training of the fingers as well as examples with reference to music literature by J.S. Bach, Haydn and Mozart in particular. He also discusses tone production with variety in touch and in duration, identifying legato, staccato and mezzo-staccato in relation to the heavier and lighter force in terms of execution.
Clementi is another important figure in the development of finger technique. Although he did not write much new from C.P.E. Bach, Türk started the trend of finger-gymnastics that was continued by Hummel, to be peaked by Czerny.

Clementi wrote a treatise entitled “Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte” in 1801. His finger exercise book “Gradus ad Parnassum” served for himself as a principal teaching aid that includes 100 studies for the piano.

Clementi much prefers the English action (Broadwood was his favorite manufacturer of piano), and such preference is reflected in his writing. To facilitate playing on such heavier action, Clementi writes exercises to strengthen the finger muscles, and such finger training is of utmost concern for the composer.

Clementi advocates the practice of placing a coin on the back of the player’s hand to maintain minimum hand movement while playing (p.45). The practice of scales, as shown in his exercises, is essential to achieve dexterity and velocity in one’s playing. Although it seems that Clementi is much occupied with finger strength, he also emphasizes touch and a singing quality in piano playing.

Hummel, in contrary to the belief of Clementi, loves the lighter Viennese action that is also much preferred by Mozart, and disregards the use of pedaling. He provides a logical development and systematic method of technic in the writing “The Piano School of Hummel”, which is in fact an extension of Marpurg and Türk’s treatise.

Hummel advocates an even touch in the fingers, and general relaxed feeling in the hands and arms. He is the one who started the system of playing ascending passages in crescendo and descending passages in decrescendo manner, as well as the use of thumbs on black keys (p.57).

Czerny certainly bears a more familiar name to the pianists nowadays in terms of building finger velocity. His “Letters to a Young Lady on the Art of Playing the Pianoforte” provide specific rules to his student on how to play and practise the piano. In the letters, Czerny converses on the topics of music rudiments, embellishment and thorough-bass playing, and mostly importantly, finger technique. He especially emphasizes the practice of scales (the following quotes are selected from the Letters):

“…these scales are the most necessary point of all, not only for beginners, but even for pupils who are much advanced; and indeed, the most expert players do and must constantly have recourse to and practise them.”. (p.12-3, original italics).

“…there is no other means than the most diligent, uninterrupted daily practice of the scales in all the keys” (p.14)

“There are few musical compositions in which they are not introduced by the author in some shape or other. In every piece, whether written to day or one hundred years ago, they are the principal means by which every passage and every melody is formed. The diatonic scales, or the chords broken into arpeggios, you will every where find employed innumerable times.” (p.14)

And the use of the thumb:
“…the passing of the thumb under the other fingers, and of the three-middle fingers over the thumb, is absolutely necessary, and that it is the only means by which we are enabled to strike a long series of keys quickly one after the other.” (p.13, original italics).

There are indeed much more quotes on the importance of scales by Czerny but this should suffice to all to what degree the composer stresses this point so far. And as a matter of fact, the use of the thumb is much related to the execution of the scales (See my post on Scales). I especially like the point Czerny made in the quote about how one can find the appearances of scales everywhere in every piece. I personally do not find the practice of playing scales hands together to be that useful that it is only for the coordination between the two hands; rather, the practice of playing scales hands separately is of utmost importance in efficient execution and fingering.

(The discussion of the second school, the Arm and its Weight, will be shown in the next post.)

Feb 19, 2010.

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